8×10″ vs. 4×5″ – Which is for you?

When you decide to try large format photography, perhaps the very next question that will arise is which of the large formats to work with. Large format encompasses everything from 2×3″ to 16×20″ and beyond, but for practical purposes, the vast majority of large format photography centers around 8×10″ and 4×5.” For the sake of simplicity, we will be looking at these two formats specifically today.

Each format has its advantages and disadvantages, which we’ll explore in some depth one area at a time,  beginning with physical size.


8×10″ film is 4x the surface area of 4×5.” Therefore, everything must of necessity be four times larger.

Your lenses will each need to cover 8×10″ with enough additional coverage to provide adequate coverage when movements such as front or rear rise, tilt, shift, and swing are applied to the camera’s standards. For this reason, you cannot necessarily use 4×5″ lenses with your 8×10.” If you plan to shoot both formats, however, you can simply purchase lenses that you know will cover 8×10,” and use them with both 8×10″ and 4×5.” This is because all lenses that cover 8×10″ will cover 4×5″ with a lot of room to spare, but many 4×5″ lenses will not provide sufficient coverage for 8×10.”

Dark cloths will also need to be larger to accommodate 8×10.” Many dark cloths have adjustable collars that can be adjusted to fit the rear standards of either format. Fellow Darkslides member Ryan Gillespie makes excellent dark cloths through his Wanderer brand which do just this and are among the best in the industry.

You will also need to invest in a way to change 8×10″ film if you size up to 8×10.” Many changing bags and tents made for 4×5″ and smaller formats will not work with 8×10.” Like the other accessories, a changing tent that works with 8×10″ will be an absolute palace for 4×5,” so if you think you may ever work with 8×10″ in the future, keep this in mind when shopping for a changing tent or bag. Changing tents tend to be easier to work with than bags, but bags offer much more portability when traveling.

Tripods are another area where you may need to make further investments in order to accommodate 8×10.” All 8×10″ cameras are far larger than other cameras out of sheer necessity, regardless of how light or heavy they are, and all of them likewise benefit from a very stable tripod. The cameras are so large (mostly due to the size of the bellows) that they effectively become a sail during windy conditions, and the tripod plays a major role in making photography possible when the winds pick up. If you utilize compositions that require the camera to be tipped forward or backward, having a stable tripod becomes even more important. As with each of the other categories, investing in a stable tripod will benefit your other camera systems and formats as well.

It probably goes without saying, but you will need to invest in a collection of 8×10″ film holders as well. While this is not a “difference” per se, the larger film holders cost a great deal more (disproportionately so) than their 4×5″ counterparts, so the added expense, weight, and bulk of these larger film holders is something you’ll want to consider when evaluating whether to size up or not.

Lens boards are another area of consideration when thinking about upsizing to 8×10.” You will likely want to invest in an adapter board that will allow you to mount your 4×5″ lens boards on your new 8×10.” For example, I use a Sinar to Linhof adapter board that lets me mount standard Linhof boards onto my 8×10,” despite the Linhof standard being designed for 4×5″ cameras. This means I can use all my lenses on both my 4×5″ and 8×10″ view cameras without the hassle of changing lens boards, which requires disassembling the lens with a spanner wrench – not something you want to do every day if you can avoid it.


As a general rule, 8×10″ cameras tend to weigh at least twice as much as their 4×5 counterparts. This is obviously better than the 4x increase that would seem to be in order considering the increase in surface area, but it is still a major jump in the weight you have to carry to every photo location. Some of the newer 8×10″ field cameras have come down quite a bit in weight, with the Intrepid 8×10″ clocking in at just over 5 pounds and the Chamonix Alpine (landscape orientation only) 8×10″ coming in at just under 6. Most of the other cameras tend to weigh quite a bit more, often in the 11-13 pound range.


The cost of the cameras, lenses, film holders and other accessories tends to go up quite substantially with 8×10.” This is not only due to the sheer size but also due to the economics of supply and demand. Large format photography of any kind is already a very small niche within photography, and 8×10″ is a much smaller niche than 4×5.” For this reason, cameras and accessories created to serve the 8×10″ market need to cost a lot more because far fewer copies will ever be sold, while the overhead costs of production tend to be higher. This effect compounds in the used market, with far fewer used copies of any given camera or lens being available. This tends to drive values up over time as used cameras and lenses wear out and the available supply of functioning units contracts further.

Image Quality

If we are honest with ourselves, we all know that 4×5″ provides far more than enough detail resolution than any of us will likely ever need, especially with access to drum scanning services like those provided by Alex Burke and Michael Strickland. Even a simple flatbed scan can provide around 186MP of resolution on the Epson V700 & 800 series scanners, for example. (I use megapixels rather than megabytes as a measure of resolution because these are the units used by the digital camera industry and those we all understand.)

However, for those of us who demand only the best or are simply gluttons for punishment, the 8×10″ format can provide over 700MP of file resolution, blowing away everything else available.

Keep in mind, film resolution does not work the same way as digital, as most digital cameras use Bayer array sensors, which consist of separate red, green, blue, and brightness photosites for each pixel, whereas film contains an organic grain blend of color and luminosity values at every spot on the film, with much finer gradations of color and tone throughout. For this reason, even small film formats can often look subjectively better than digital formats of much higher resolutions when scanned.

In summary, almost no one needs the detail provided by 8×10″ film, but it sure is nice to experience! One application where the added detail of 8×10″ does come in handy is that of printing large murals and wall-sized art installations many feet wide or tall. Because 8×10″ provides more resolution, you can print these large sizes at a much higher DPI which looks much better when viewed close up.

Depth of Field

Most of you are probably familiar with the rather silly debates about the decreased depth of field when moving from APS-C to 35mm “full-frame” digital sensors. It should be obvious why I use quotation marks to say that when we consider these tiny sizes in light of all the medium and large format sizes that are far larger and therefore have a far shallower depth of field. With large format, we find that the depth of field plane is so thin that it makes camera movements and very narrow apertures a necessity in order to get anything substantial in focus in a scene. It is for this reason that most large format cameras use a bellows design that allows for extensive camera movements to be applied in order to manipulate that thin depth of field plane in 3-dimensional space. It is also why large format lenses tend to stop down much farther than their small and medium format counterparts. Minimum apertures ranging from f/32 to as small as f/256 are not uncommon with large format lenses.

8×10″ film cameras have a much thinner depth of field plane than their 4×5″ counterparts. This can make getting a scene in focus from front to back and edge to edge very challenging. Because of this, it may take longer to adjust camera movements to just the exact right configuration required to obtain the maximum possible depth of field for any given scene with 8×10.” You may also need to stop down further in some cases.

The good news is, the procedure for setting up camera movements is exactly the same with 8×10″ as with 4×5,” and with a little practice, you can become familiar enough with focusing an 8×10″ camera that you can comfortably switch back and forth between the large formats without much if any difficulty.

Ground Glass and Composition

One tremendous benefit of 8×10″ film cameras is their massive ground glass, which makes composing absolutely delightful and much easier and more pleasant than it is already with 4×5.” While composing with a 4×5″ ground glass feels like a magical experience, 8×10″ is even more so, and even could be described as sublime.


8×10″ film essentially has all of the aspects of 4×5″ photography but multiplied by 4. If you love 4×5″ you will probably love 8×10″ even more. However, you must consider all the tradeoffs involved, such as the increases in size, weight, and cost. Each medium has its strengths and weaknesses. For example, 4×5″ tends to be much easier and lighter to carry on backpacking trips and when traveling by airplane or other public transportation. 8×10″ tends to be nicer for studio work and landscape work that happens close to the car. Only the pure diehards will be willing to take an 8×10″ view camera deep into the backcountry or on a long flight. However, for those of us who are willing to put in the work and accept the compromises involved in 8×10″ photography, the rewards are equally substantial.

Best of 2019

Using calculators in large format photography

Part I: Depth of field

Correct focusing, as trivial as it may seem to users of small cameras like an SLR or even an autofocus camera, can become – and more often than not actually does become – a challenge when working with a large-format camera, in particular when the term “focusing” is meant to encompass all the correct camera adjustments needed to obtain a flawless, throughout sharp image with sufficient depth of field (DOF). Given that the superior technical quality of the final print is one of the major reasons for using a large format camera, it is clear that the LF photographer needs to understand and master proper focusing.

Figure 1: Silver and Gold. Stand of old Cottonwood trees in Colorado; Sinar 5×7´´, Apo-Ronar 9/300, RVP 100, 1 sec @ f/22 +2/3. This is an example of a shot which would seriously suffer from an insufficient depth of field – had both the branches close to the camera and those in the background not appeared tack sharp, this shot wouldn´t have made it into my portfolio. The moderately long lens required stopping down to a bit less than f/32 – needless to say that this was determined using the technique described in this blog post.

The reason for the difficulty to perfectly focus a LF camera simply is the fact that in large format everything is – well: larger. Among others this means that the focal lengths in the LF world are much longer than for small cameras – for example, the normal lens for a 4×5″ camera has a focal length of 150 mm, and the normal lens for an 8×10″ camera is 300 mm. Unfortunately, the depth of field of a lens decreases with increasing focal length, and it is exactly this theme of limited DoF which is a large format photographer´s steady companion. While in smaller format photography long lenses are often used to isolate an in-focus main subject from an out-of-focus blurry foreground and/or background, this is not often done in large format photography. Rather, here one normally tries to bring all elements of a composition into focus (or, more precisely, into the DoF zone within which everything appears if not perfectly, then at least sufficiently sharp). But how can this be accomplished with an average three-dimensional scenery when even a super wide-angle lens for an 8×10″ camera, equivalent to a 20 mm lens for 35 mm cameras, still has a focal length of 120 mm?

Stopping down is the first thing which comes to mind, and in LF photography this is absolutely essential: in practice you will never shoot wide open, both because of the minute DoF at open aperture and because traditional LF lenses, other than some modern digital lenses, are designed to be really sharp only when stopped down. Typically an LF lens´ “sweet spot” (the aperture where sharpness is at its maximum) lies somewhere between f/16 and f/22, regardless of its speed. Having a close look at how LF lenses perform, it often can be observed that a lens shows its highest performance in the center around f/16, with the corners being noticeably less (but still acceptably) sharp. Stopping down to f/22 then allows the corners to catch up, while sharpness in the center already begins to slightly degrade due to diffraction. So as a rule of thumb one may say that for many if not most LF lenses f/22 provides the best overall sharpness, with resolution in the corners being not much behind the performance in the center – of course always provided everything is in focus. While theoretically DoF can be increased by stopping down further – some LF lenses allow to stop down to f/90 or even f/128 – for formats of 8×10 and smaller stopping down a large format lens to beyond about f/32 is no good practice, because then diffraction kicks in and will start to visibly degrade image quality. It is often overlooked how dramatic this effect is: while diffraction limits the theoretical maximum resolution of a lens at f/22 to 68 lpm (= line pairs per millimeter), stopping down to f/45 cuts the achievable resolution down to only half of this value, 34 lpm. At f/64, only 24 lpm is left, and now even two thirds or more of the lenses resolving power are being wasted – that´s not why you decided to go for an LF setup.

On the other hand it needs to be seen that picture elements which are clearly out of focus are even worse than an overall somewhat “soft” image suffering from diffraction. Accordingly the goal will be to make sure that all parts of a subject will be within DoF, and at the same time to achieve this without stopping down too much. Camera movements (which are not part of this blog post) are often absolutely indispensable for obtaining sufficient overall sharpness of an image, but even with perfect adjustments of the camera it often remains a challenge to find the best possible compromise between sufficient DoF and limited diffraction.

I believe it´s fair to say that in the practice of LF landscape photography you´ll almost never be in the situation where you have any DoF to waste. Rather, DoF has to be seen as an invaluable and limited resource you have to be very considerate about, and more often than not to fight for – every carelessness will almost inevitably result in a loss of sharpness somewhere (or everywhere) in your image. If you locate your focus point at the wrong distance, too close or too distant parts of your subject will appear out of focus. If you don´t close the aperture far enough, DoF won´t suffice, and both too close and too distant picture elements will look blurry. If you close the aperture too far, diffraction will degrade resolution across the entire image. This situation might remind some people of thermodynamics, where the first law says that you can´t win, while the second law then informs you that you can´t even break even, and in any case means that proper focusing requires all your attention and skill.

From this it becomes clear that for a rational approach to focussing it will be indispensable to know exactly, once the camera has been set up and all movements made, from where to where DoF needs to extend, and which focus setting and which aperture will be needed to provide exactly this DoF, not more and not less.

What comes in extremely handy here is a DoF calculator like the one Rodenstock used to make (Fig. 2). The concept behind this calculator is strikingly simple so that it´s very easy to use: you just have to determine the extension difference between the near and the far focus points on your camera, which directly translates to the aperture needed for your shot. This sets the Rodenstock calculator apart from the numerous electronic DoF calculators available today, some of which are web-based (which doesn´t help much anyway when you´re out in the middle of nowhere) while others come in the form of smartphone apps. Unfortunately most if not all of these electronic calculators, and in any case all which I have seen so far, require you to enter the near point and the far point as measured as the distance between your camera and selected elements of your subject, not as extensions of your camera. This renders them virtually useless for outdoor use unless you find a way to reliably determine these distances in the field.

Figure 2: Rodenstock´s depth of field calculator

For determination of the extension difference it´s ideal if your camera has a scale like many monorail cameras have (Fig. 3). If your camera is not equipped with a scale, you can use a millimeter scale ruler which for this purpose could be removably attached to your focussing standard, e.g. using velcro. Once the two focus points have been determined, you´re almost done: just position the focusing standard at the exact middle between the near and the far focus point and close the aperture to the value required by

Figure 3: The millimeter scale on a focussing standard. The example shown here is the front standard of a Sinar Norma camera. Sinar´s monorail cameras allow choosing from either the front or the back standard to be used for focusing, depending on the situation.

the distance between the two extreme focus points. This value can either be read from your calculator (Fig. 4; read: with an extension difference of 4.0 mm, the calculator suggests f/16) or be taken from one of the tables below. The beauty of this approach is that the effect of the focal length on DoF is already factored into the extension difference itself and does not need to be further considered or corrected for. For example, an extension difference of 4.0 mm will always require stopping down to the same aperture, regardless of whether obtained with a 47 mm superwide lens or a 300 mm long lens. Also, forget about the “one third / two thirds rule” – using the focusing method presented here, the correct focus point is at the middle between the near and the far focusing point, nowhere else.

Figure 4: Reading the Rodenstock calculator

While the Rodenstock calculator works for essentially every LF camera, its use is particularly straightforward with cameras which allow both the front and the rear standard to be used for focusing, and which have fine drives with an engraved millimeter scale. These features in this combination won´t be available for most flatbed cameras (in which case you´ll have to improvise a bit), but they are pretty common in case of monorail cameras (e.g., Sinar). For these the workflow is as follows:

  1. Coarse focusing by adjusting the distance of the standards on the rail. While doing so, make sure that the fine drives of both standards stay in the “0” position.
  2. Fine focusing using the drive of one of the standards to the far point – the drive of the other standard remains in the “0” position.
  3. Fine focusing using the drive of the other standard to the near point – don´t touch the first standard in this step anymore.
  4. Reading the additional extension (in millimeters) needed to shift the focus from the far point to the near point.
  5. Determining the appropriate aperture corresponding to the additional extension using the calculator; stop down accordingly. Don´t forget the correction for an appropriate circle of confusion, as described below.
  6. Moving the second standard back to the exact middle between the near and the far focusing adjustments (i.e., to 50% of the additional extension) – and you´re ready to shoot.

While this description may sound a bit lengthy and complicated, in practice it´s absolutely easy to follow, and in the time needed for reading this paragraph you could have focussed your camera according to this technique two or three times.

Unfortunately Rodenstock has not only discontinued their line of outstanding LF lenses, but they also don´t make this fantastic tool anymore, so you´ll have to look for one of the places where they still have a couple of these calculators remaining on their shelves, to spot some forgotten stock which may show up from time to time, or get a used one. As of July 2019, you can still buy the calculator from the following sources: US  B&H (USD 79.95), Badgergraphic (USD 44.99); UK  Linhofstudio (GBP 34.00); Germany  Foto Mueller (EUR 37.20), W. E. Schoen (who actually designed the Rodenstock calculator; EUR 42.00). Alternatively you can laminate either a photocopy of the calculator (or a small number of photocopies with the calculator being adjusted to different scales of reproduction and to different front tilt angles, if that is relevant for your photographic style) or simply a printout of a table with the most important numbers (see tables 1-3). For those who are frequently working at reproduction ratios in the 1:1 to 1:20 range, Linhof has published a depth-of-field chart which also works on the basis of extension differences.

Finally, there is still one more interesting variation of the theme: DoF scales on the focussing knobs of some monorails which you can find, e.g., on Sinar´s f2 and P2 cameras. For those with the necessary patience and skills, instructions of how to make such a scale for other cameras (e.g., an Arca Swiss F-line) have been published on QT Luong´s Large Format Photography page.

Table 1: f-numbers for 1:∞ scale and zero front tilt. In deviation from the Rodenstock calculator, f-numbers already have been corrected for a smaller circle of confusion (see main text) and can be directly used without further correction. The (corrected) numbers in the table are based on those indicated by the calculator and thus depend on the shooting format. As explained in more detail in the main text, I nevertheless recommend using the values determined for 4×5 also for 5×7 and 8×10. Depending on the lens you are using, working at f/32 (fields shaded in grey) typically does not provide optimal resolution due to diffraction and tends to soften what actually should be tack sharp. Yellow fields indicate the onset of clearly visible image degradation due to diffraction. I cannot recommend stopping down to f/45 or beyond regardless of the format you´re using; this is nothing but an emergency solution if nothing else helps. Orange fields mean that you should seriously consider further refining your camera movements or even to change your composition since diffraction will seriously limit image quality. An alternative, although very time-consuming at the post-processing stage, would be focus stacking of images shot at a bigger aperture (of course only feasible if you use a hybrid workflow via scanning your film). A dash indicates situations in which stopping down beyond f/64 inevitably would cause such a loss of image quality due to diffraction that using a large format camera probably is not a good choice here. Finally, those rare situations in which a very small extension difference would allow to work with an aperture larger than f/16 (which would be out of most LF lenses´ “sweet spot” of sharpness) are indicated by an “o”. Here, in practice an aperture in the classic f/16…f/22 range is recommended.

However you implement this all in practice: working with precise focus adjustments and carefully determining the optimal aperture for each of your subjects will eliminate a lot of guesswork from your LF photography, and can lead immediately and effortless to technically significantly improved images.

In practice, a number of points need to be kept in mind though.

First, a correction factor has to be considered if you either use front tilt and/or are shooting a close-up subject, with a scale of reproduction of more than 1:20 or so. A nice thing about the Rodenstock calculator is that such parameters can be factored in very easily by making appropriate adjustments to the calculator; when working with a table, a little bit of guesswork may come in again. Table 2 provides the f-numbers for a reproduction scale of 1:10, table 3 the f-numbers for a tilt angle of 30°.

Table 2: f-numbers for 1:10 scale and zero front tilt. Like in table 1, f-numbers are corrected for a smaller circle of confusion.

Second, to my experience the circle of confusion used for these DoF calculations (which corresponds to the international standard circle of confusion of 0.03 mm for the 35 mm format) is too optimistic and does not fit today´s expectations regarding the sharpness of a somewhat larger print. I experienced this already many years ago on when using the DoF scales of my manual 35 mm Nikon lenses and bumped into the very same problem again after moving to Large Format. In order to overcome this, I recommend closing the aperture by one more stop than the calculator (or the DoF scale on a 35 mm lens) suggests. In the example of Fig. 4 above, I´d use f/22 instead of f/16 as the working aperture. In my hands this correction by one-stop provides highly satisfactory results, but the necessary correction will depend on your particular requirements, first of all the size at which you intend to print and the viewing distance from which your prints are expected to look flawless.

Table 3: f-numbers for 1:∞ scale and 30° front tilt. Correction like in tables 1 and 2.

Third, the logic behind these calculators assumes different scales of reproduction for different film formats. For example, it is assumed that because an 8×10″ negative needs to be enlarged only half as much as a 4×5″ negative for obtaining a print of the same final size, the allowable circle of confusion is twice as big for an 8×10″ camera. With this concept I do not agree, because I don´t want to pay four times as much for an 8×10″ sheet of film and its development and carry three times the weight in the field, only for obtaining essentially the same image quality which I can easily get out of a 4×5″ negative. While theoretically these numbers of course are correct, they suggest using the larger formats (5×7″ and 8×10″) in a way which I deem pointless. Instead I personally think that whenever possible the values determined for 4×5″ should be used regardless of whether shooting 4×5″ or larger, even if that means that in practice an 8×10″ camera will only provide superior results in comparison to smaller cameras with subjects which have not much depth and thus allow to work at f/22…f/32. Due to the deleterious and inescapable effect of diffraction, an 8×10″ negative shot at f/45 won´t contain more detail than a 4×5″ negative of exactly the same subject shot at f/22 from the same distance with a lens having half the focal length. It thus is just more expensive, without providing any advantage in image quality (except maybe looking more impressive on the lightbox).

One last thing: I absolutely don´t advocate focus stacking in large format photography, since it can be extremely tedious and cumbersome to perfectly combine the scans of two or even more differently focussed images to one flawless image file. One reason for my reluctance to do focus stacking is that in my experience for unclear reasons the scans to be combined tend to show distortions which prevent them from fitting perfectly. This effect renders their combination an editing nightmare which can cost you many hours if not days of work until everything is perfect. And don´t even think of letting the software do this for you – dismay would be guaranteed. That being said, unfortunately there are occasions where there simply is no real alternative to focus stacking, namely when in order to obtain the required DoF for an image you´d need to stop down so seriously that diffraction would essentially eat up all the advance large format has over smaller formats. In such cases, and they come up from time to time, I definitely prefer to combine two images shot at f/32 over one single image shot at f/64 which would be guaranteed to lack overall sharpness. In such instances you need a tool to set your two (or more) focus points as precisely as you can, and for this again a DoF calculator is simply indispensable. Fig. 5 is an example of a successful focus stacking project, but this took me more than two days of not very pleasant computer work until the two 400 MB scans had been seamlessly merged into one file.

Figure 5: Carboniferous. Hoodoos and coal bed in New Mexico; Sinar 5×7´´, Nikkor T-ED 9/360 mm, RVP 100, focus stacking of two exposures taken at 1/4 sec and f/32. Due to the difficult topology of the location there was no way to switch to a different composition which could have alleviated my focussing problems. I thus decided to apply focus stacking and to “split” the shot (which otherwise would have required stopping down to f/64) into two separate exposures at f/32.

Taking all these aspects into account, DoF calculators are a reliable, inexpensive and easy-to-use means to replace all the guesswork otherwise needed by a rational approach to focussing and stopping down. In order to get the highest technical quality out of large format photography you need to work as precisely as possible, and these calculators provide you with exactly the information you need to reach that goal. I´m using mine for practically every single shot, and I know that I´d be way less satisfied with the sharpness of my images if I didn´t.

Part II – Using calculators in large format photography

Name: Frank Sirona

Location: Germany

Description: I´ve been interested in landscape photography since I saw for the first time a number of dye transfer prints made by the pioneer of color landscape photography, Eliot Porter. After my Nikon years I had a brief affair with a Mamiya 7, until in 2004 I finally upgraded to large format. Since then I´m shooting film using my swiss made 4×5, 5×7 and 8×10 Sinar cameras. Of these, the 5×7 has by far become my favorite, since weight and bulk of a 5×7 are still somehow manageable when air traveling (flying with a 8×10 monorail is a pain, believe me!), while the big groundglass is just a joy and makes composing easier than with a 4×5 camera. Also I personally do like the 5:7 side ratio much more than the 4:5 ratio of the other two standard large formats. The majority of my work has been done in the Desert Southwest, and I continue returning there whenever I can.


Instagram: @franksirona

Lightweight Large Format Photography on a Budget

When you think of large format photography, several things probably come to mind: heavy, expensive, bulky, complicated, difficult. While these may be the stereotypes commonly associated with large format photography, they are by no means traits that must be associated with it in practice. In this article, I’d like to address the weight and bulk concerns, while also taking on the cost concern tangentially as well.

As a landscape photographer, I enjoy hiking and backpacking to find and photograph remote locations in the wilderness, often where no other photographers have worked before. This usually means that I need to traverse canyons, forests, and streams, climb mountains and spelunk into caves to reach my scenes. Regardless of the exact nature of the terrain in which you will be photographing, weight and bulk are drags on your ability to create compelling work. This is due to the fact that weight increases the amount of energy required to hike or walk any given distance with your gear. It also creates a strain on your muscles and bones which leads to back, shoulder, and leg pain as well as fatigue. When you are exhausted and fatigued, you will not be in a good position to be creative enough to produce your best work. This is a simple fact of human limitations. Because of this, I have invested a great deal of careful research and thought into the types of gear I use for my hiking and photography.

When thinking about gear, it is often best to divide and conquer by sorting your gear into systems. Each system is responsible for a different aspect of your operations. For example, you might have a gear storage system which includes your backpack, as well as any gear pouches or wraps which protect your individual items within the larger pack. If you are backpacking, you have a sleep system, which includes your sleeping bag, your sleeping pad, and an inflatable pillow. You also have a shelter system, which includes your tent, stakes, poles, guy lines, and any other accessories such as a ground sheet. You have a cooking system, which includes your stove, cook pot, spoon, and any other related items such as fuel canisters or lighters. Finally, you have your photography system, which includes the camera, lenses, film holders, dark cloth, light meter, filters, tripod, and any other items you carry.

Because I don’t wish to make this article overwhelmingly long, we will have to save the discussion of backpacking gear for another day and focus on that last category, camera systems. I’ll also touch on gear storage systems, as they are necessary to carry your camera gear into the field.

Camera Selection

When selecting a camera for landscape photography, one of my primary considerations (arguably above all else after negative or sensor size/specs) is weight. I also consider bulk to be closely related. I look for cameras that are both compact and lightweight. This probably seems a little crazy when you consider that I am a large format photographer, but when you think about it, weight and bulk are more important than ever when working with large format because we are already operating at a strong disadvantage in these areas.

The Intrepid Camera 4×5

If you are looking for a large format camera that is compact and lightweight, you have a few options. The first and foremost option is the Intrepid Camera, which are the cameras that I currently choose to work with. You will certainly be able to find numerous other camera companies who make cameras that are more luxurious to work with, have more features, better fit and finish, and superior materials. However, they are not purpose built with weight and bulk as primary considerations, and as such are frequently heavy, expensive, and complicated.

The Intrepid Camera 4×5 costs £280 GBP or $354 USD and weighs 1.1kg or 2.42lb.

Intrepid 4×5 Mk. 4, viewed from the rear with front rise

Intrepid 4x5, Mk. 4

Intrepid 4×5, Mk. 4 viewed from the front with some front rise, swing, and tilt

The Intrepid Camera 8×10

The Intrepid 8×10″ Mk. 2 is very lightweight and compact for an 8×10.”

My current primary camera which is the workhorse for most of my trips at the moment is the Intrepid 8×10. I had the unique opportunity to help develop this camera from its inception, and it has become my favorite camera to date. It has proved reliable, lightweight, compact, and extremely capable.

The Intrepid 8×10″ Mk. 2 viewed from the rear standard

The Intrepid Camera 8×10 costs £480 GBP or $607 USD.

What I Look For in a Camera

When it comes time to find a camera, I look for one that is affordable, lightweight, and compact, because these are the metrics for success in the use case I need the camera to serve. The Intrepid cameras tick all of these boxes. They are simple, rugged, compact, lightweight, and extremely capable pound for pound. To put this in perspective, I can create virtually all of the images with the Intrepid that I could with an Arca-Swiss, but at roughly 1/15th the cost and about 1/2 to 1/3rd of the weight, depending on the configuration. For me, this is a no-brainer.

Obviously, some of my friends here at the Darkslides take the opposite approach, which is perfectly fine. Photography is all about having memorable experiences while making meaningful images with cameras you enjoy using. Everyone will have different preferences as to what they enjoy and value.

As I mentioned above, it’s all about selecting a camera for your needs and your budget. My needs are that the camera must be compact and lightweight, and it must be affordable to own and replace if necessary. Landscape photography is notoriously rough on camera gear. I could destroy and replace my Intrepid 8×10 camera 15 times over for what it would cost me to purchase even a single Arca-Swiss 8×10 and carry two or three of them on my back for the equivalent weight. So for these reasons, I’m willing to accept some tradeoffs in other areas. Whether you are or not will be up to you to decide.

Some Important Background Notes

In the interest of full disclosure, I will mention that I have been working extensively with Intrepid on the development and field testing of their cameras for several years now. Many of my images have been used to promote their cameras around the world. As a result, I’ve received all but one of my 6 Intrepid cameras for free in exchange. I stand 100% behind the company and recommend their cameras regardless of this arrangement. Their track record for customer service is excellent, and they have been aggressively responding to customer feedback and improving their products constantly. I can think of no other company in the large format industry which has a comparable record. It is important to note that I was only ever given the newer cameras because of the work I’d created using an early (and admittedly much buggier and less featured) version of the camera which I paid for entirely with my own money. I do not receive any commission or other payment from the company in exchange for the numerous cameras I’ve sold for them, and the cameras I’ve received were all for testing, development and review purposes.

For what it’s worth, my digital images were also used in the past to promote both Canon & Fujifilm’s cameras, and I do not currently even shoot, let alone actively recommend, either of those brands. I say this to clarify that these arrangements do not in any way buy my loyalty or recommendation of a camera or brand, and I reserve the right to change brands and recommendations at any time.

Now, let’s look at several competing options in the area of lightweight large format cameras:

Chamonix Alpinist

Chamonix Alpinist 8×10, front view

Chamonix Alpinist 8×10, side view

Chamonix makes an 8×10 camera known as the Alpinist, which only works in the horizontal orientation. To make a vertical composition, you must turn the camera sideways on the tripod, as you would with a 35mm camera. The camera does, however, feature a very nice fit and finish. It weighs almost the same as the Intrepid 8×10, at 5.48lb, or 2.49kg. The camera costs €4,690 EUR or about $5,261 USD.

The price tag alone essentially disqualifies this camera from consideration for the purposes of this article, as it is not affordable at all and is rather heavy. I include it here for reference so you can see what is out there, and how some of the other options compare. I also chose not to include the Ritter camera here, because it is too expensive and too heavy to fit in the affordable lightweight category.

The primary benefits of this camera are the build quality and low weight. The primary downsides are the very high cost and the lack of a way to rotate the back, which can be very limiting in the field. If you like the high quality, can afford the price tag and don’t mind the limitations, it could be a great camera for you. Its bellows supports lens extensions ranging from 60mm to 570mm.


Gibellini Proxima

Gibellini Proxima 4×5, showing off some flex

If you are looking for uniquely designed affordable lightweight 4×5 view camera, Gibellini makes their Proxima camera model, which is entirely 3D printed in white. The camera can handle bellows extensions ranging from 50mm to 380mm, or 400mm with their available bag bellows. It ranges from €379-499 EUR ($425-560 USD) in price, depending on the configuration. The Proxima weighs 1.4kg or 3.09lb. I don’t have any personal experience with this camera, but I do enjoy looking at pictures of it on the internet!

The Gibellini Proxima is a very unique and beautiful camera

Standard Camera

The Standard 4×5 is the only current monorail that can truly be considered both lightweight and affordable.

Standard is a new entry into the world of large format photography. Their only camera model right now is a unique 4×5 monorail that is both lightweight and affordable. It is truly unique as most monorails are very heavy by comparison. The Standard Camera 4×5 weighs in at only 2.3lb (1.04kg), or roughly the same as an Intrepid 4×5. It costs just $360 (€321 EUR), which is quite reasonable for a new large format camera. It also has the distinction of being the only camera that is available in pieces for you to assemble at home like a LEGO set. This makes it a fun project for makers and tinkerers. You can also save a bit of money (-$40/€36, making the camera $320/€285) by opting to assemble the camera yourself. I am currently considering adding a Standard Camera to my lineup as it represents the first time a monorail design has been light enough to meet my personal camera weight requirements. Monorail cameras provide a wider range of movements than their folding field camera counterparts, which makes the Standard Camera compelling even for those who already have a field camera.

The Standard 4×5 Monorail collapses down quite small, especially for a monorail!

There are of course a few cameras also available on the used market which may come close to this weight class and affordability level. My goal here was to cover a handful of the currently available newly manufactured affordable lightweight large format camera options as of 2019.

The Standard 4×5 is a beautiful camera with a simple, modern design.

Lens Selection

Next to your camera, selecting your lenses is one of the biggest opportunities to save weight. As a general rule, for wilderness landscape photography on large format film, you will want to buy lenses with narrow maximum apertures. Granted, you will have a brighter image on the ground glass with faster maximum aperture lenses, but you will pay major penalties for that convenience in weight, bulk, and cost.

The Schneider-Kreuznach Angulon 90mm ƒ/6.8 is truly tiny, at about the size of a 35mm lens cap or Micro 4/3 pancake lens! The rear element is nearly flat.

My lightest lenses have maximum apertures ranging from ƒ/6.8 to ƒ/8. They include a diminutive Schneider Angulon 90mm ƒ/6.8 for 4×5 and an also impressively small Fujinon C 300mm ƒ/8 which covers both 4×5 & 8×10.

I mount all my lenses in Linhof boards, which saves weight while also allowing me to use them on both my 4×5 and 8×10 cameras. To fit the lenses to my 8×10, I simply carry a Linhof-Sinar adaptor board, which mounts to the camera and allows it to accept my Linhof lens boards. This saves a lot of weight and cost vs. carrying separate lenses for both cameras or carrying multiple heavy Sinar lens boards for my 8×10.

A Note on Tripods

It is difficult to recommend anyone specific tripod, as the best tripod for you will depend on what type of camera you go with, how tall you want it to extend, and how small you want it to collapse. It will also depend on your budget and on weight, as well as availability considerations in your area (shipping tripods internationally can be quite expensive).

However, as a general set of guidelines, look for a rigid carbon fiber tripod that is fairly compact and can fit easily strapped to the side of your backpack. I tend to go with a tripod that is a little smaller than would ordinarily be recommended for my camera, as the cameras I use are so lightweight that they work well with lightweight tripods. You will find that as you make one thing lighter, you can also make another thing lighter as a result. A heavier tripod will, of course, be more rigid, but you can usually find a good balance of lightweight to rigidity with a medium-sized carbon fiber tripod.

Saving Weight with Accessories

Even after you’ve knocked out a lot of weight with your camera and lens selections, there are still dozens of other areas where you can save weight and cost in your large format photography setup.

Film holders are one of those areas. Wooden film holders are substantially lighter than their plastic counterparts, and in my experience have proven significantly more reliable as well. Furthermore, they can also be cheaper if you are patient and know where to look. My 8×10 film holders are vintage Kodak-Graflex wooden ones made in the 1920s, which I purchased on eBay for just $30 each. They weigh in at 520g each, which is even lighter than the brand new Chamonix wooden film holders with carbon fiber darkslides that cost $300 each, or 10 times as much. Intrepid has also just released some new wooden 8×10 film holders if you would like to purchase some new stock that hasn’t been used for many years and are still quite affordable and light. I’ve purchased all of my film holders on eBay.

Light meters typically weigh about a pound or half a kilogram. A couple of years ago, when Alan Brock and I were one day into a 5-day backpacking trip, both of my light meters decided to permanently stop working. They are rather expensive and heavy, so I was reluctant to replace them. I never did. For the past two years, I’ve done 100% of my large format photography using only a free iPhone app as a light meter, with good success and almost no exposure errors. Of course, this requires some knowledge of how various film stocks will behave in different lighting conditions, but you need that regardless of what type of light meter you use. This has allowed me to save a lot of money and 1-2 pounds of weight in my pack, which in turn cancels out the weight of a lens or two. Your mileage may vary, as they say, but don’t feel compelled to buy a light meter simply because others use them. They are a very nice luxury to have, but not essential.

Wanderer Dark Cloths are the best I’ve seen and used to date.

Dark cloths typically also weigh around a pound or half a kilogram. I do use an excellent dark cloth made by Wanderer Photo Gear for my photography that does not involve backpacking. These are the best dark cloths I’ve seen and used to date. They are available in a wide range of fabrics, including lightweight & waterproof versions, as well as numerous colorful and patterned options.

However, when going on overnight trips I simply use one of my jacket layers as a dark cloth, and that works quite well. Remember, something that is rain or windproof is also light proof. A wind or rain shell, fleece or puffy jacket will make a great dark cloth if you simply slip the collar around the rear standard of your camera (face down) and stick your head in through the torso opening at the bottom. I’ve used this setup numerous times to create many of my favorite images. To put this in perspective, my dark cloth weighs about the same as my R5.7 winter sleeping pad and consumes about the same amount of pack space. This is a substantial saving!

At the time of writing, Wanderer Photo Gear has recently announced a new ultralight version of their dark cloth (I had requested this version be considered after testing their standard design for them when it was first released). There is a possibility this one might be light enough for me to consider taking it backpacking. I will have to test one first to find out, but it looks promising. As another disclaimer, I received my current Wanderer dark cloth for free in exchange for providing field testing and feedback. However, I was blown away by the build quality and design, and recommend it whole-heartedly. They are well worth every penny.

A film changing bag looks like a T-shirt on which the bottom and neck were sewn shut. It is almost as light.

While we are talking about things I skip, I should mention something I don’t: a film changing bag. This is an area where I consider that savings to be “stupid light.” If I run out of film on a multi-day trip and have no ability to reload, my trip is over in terms of photography. For this reason, even on a 5-day trip, I carried two boxes of film containing over 120 sheets, and a small and light field changing bag for 4×5. I also carried 6 film holders (which is almost two full days worth of photography for me, at 12 exposures), because being forced to stop and load film holders in the middle of rapidly changing light is no fun at all. Note that this only applies to multi-day trips. On single day trips, I carry 2-4 film holders for 8×10 and 4-6 for 4×5 (depending on my plan for the day) and do not reload.

Carrying Your Camera Gear

There are a couple of features I look for in a camera backpack, and they tend to be much the same as the criteria for cameras. I want a pack that is rugged, purpose-built, lightweight, and affordable. I also want a pack with conveniently placed zippers that make accessing my gear a breeze. When I say “purpose-built,” I don’t necessarily mean for photography per se. Oftentimes backpacks made for photography are strictly designed to carry cameras, at the expense of all other functionality. This creates a problem because wilderness landscape photography involves far more hiking and backpacking than photography. A bag designed for urban or semi-urban (within easy walking distance of a parking area) use will often not be practical to use on a long hike or multi-day backpacking trip.

Camera Bags for Lightweight Large Format Photography

For this reason, I tend to find that backpacking bags work the best for landscape photography. As a result, I use a backpacking bag and simply pack my camera gear in protective cases or wraps inside it, along with all my hiking and backpacking gear, food, water, clothing, shelter, sleeping gear, etc.

The Mountainsmith Tanucklite 40 holds an insane amount of gear relative to its liter rating. I fit both my entire 8×10 & 4×5 systems, including lenses and film holders, inside with room to spare for additional hiking gear!

Mountainsmith Tanucklite 40, zipped open, showing off its optional cube system

Remember, we are looking for a bag that is also very lightweight, while also meeting the aforementioned requirements. These limitations essentially narrow the field to just panel-zipper loading ultralight backpacking bags, of which there are not many on the market. The pack I currently use is an Ultralight Adventure Equipment (ULA) Camino 2, which is a 75-liter ultralight backpacking and travel bag featuring a panel-loading design. A pack that I have also been considering recently is the Chris Burkard Mountainsmith Tanucklite 40, which features a very similar design with some more photography-centered features. I had the unique opportunity to test my gear out in Chris Burkard’s personal prototype of the bag before it was released to the public. The Tanucklite 40 is officially labeled as a 40-liter bag, but I have personally tested it and found it to easily hold all the same gear that fills my 75-liter bag, so it seems to be quite conservatively rated in terms of capacity.

Back of the ULA Camino

Back of the ULA Camino

ULA Camino 2, zipped open

The panel loading design allows instant access to gear without undoing the top of the bag.

The Camino 2, like many ultralight cottage-industry bags, looks a lot like most heavy, traditional backpacking bags you might find at REI or other outdoor retailers. It just weighs a LOT less, while costing about the same!

The reason I use the bag that I do is primarily due to weight. Many comparable bags weigh around 5-6 pounds completely empty. By comparison, my bag weighs in around 40 ounces or 2.5lb. To put that in perspective, this weight savings in the backpack fabric alone entirely cancels out the weight of my large format 4×5 field camera.

I then continue this approach within the bag itself. I have modified the pack by cutting off many extraneous features that I don’t use, shortening all straps to only the required lengths, and simplifying or removing heavy buckles and closures. To store my camera gear within the pack, I have made a couple of padded inserts using Reflectix insulation, which is sold by the roll at home improvement stores for about $10. This may sound like a rather unorthodox material to use to house camera gear, but consider that it is waterproof, contains two layers of mylar thermal insulation, and a layer of internal bubble wrap material for padding. It has successfully protected my gear against splashes, heat, cold, and impacts.

DIY Camera Inserts

DIY Home Depot Reflectix case housing Intrepid 4×5. This one has been through the ringer. Note compartment at the top for 4 film holders. Side houses 3 lenses and sometimes a meter & filters.

These cases have survived multi-day backpacking trips trekking through chest-deep water, spelunking trips being dragged through caves, and countless day hikes in rugged and remote areas. They cost me about $3 worth of materials and weigh 3 ounces (85 grams) for the 4×5 kit case. Each case houses my camera, 3 lenses, and 6 film holders, as well as a light meter and filters. My 8×10 case weighs around 5 ounces (142 grams) and has worked similarly well.

To put this in perspective, when I went to find a commercially available case to do the same job, the lightest one I could find for 4×5 weighed in at well over a pound (18oz / 510g or so) completely empty and cost around $80-100. Furthermore, the commercially available cases left empty space in my pack because they fit my gear poorly. The custom DIY cases fit exactly around my gear with no room to spare, making for very efficient use of pack space. By saving this much weight and cost on cases to house my camera gear, I have canceled out the weight of one or two of my lenses and saved enough money to help pay for them too.

Using a Lens Wrap as a Camera Insert

A large lens wrap makes a great camera wrap.

If you are not too excited about the idea of building a case out of repurposed insulation, there are some other options. One that I frequently use is a large lens/camera wrap. This one is made by Tenba, but there are many brands available. They have 4 velcro tabs which allow you to securely wrap just about anything securely. Paired with a ground glass protector, they can house a 4×5 easily and do a good job of protecting it.

There’s an Intrepid 4×5 hiding in there.

I also use these to hold lenses and film holders.


Me, shooting 8×10 in the field, super happy and energetic because I didn’t have to carry a ton of weight out there to enjoy some large format photography.

It may seem silly to focus as much as I do on the weight of the year you carry and make the compromises I do. However, I can absolutely vouch for the fact that this stuff matters. Making my gear as light and compact as possible has fundamentally changed the game of my photography. It has increased remoteness and technicality of the locations I’m able to hike to. It has decreased muscle fatigue and back pain, increased energy and comfort, and decreased recovery times after returning home. I am able to camp in comfort and warmth with adequate food and water while still bringing a large supply of film and lenses which allow me to photograph uncompromised for days at a time – all with about 34 pounds (15.4kg) on my back for a 5-day trip. The end result of this is that I am able to capture large format film images while carrying less weight and bulk than most 35mm digital landscape photographers do on comparable trips. To me, that makes it all worthwhile.

A Simple and Effective Ground Tether

As Alex Burke mentioned in last month’s blog post, setting up a view camera in the dark is an enormous challenge. The image on the ground glass is incredibly dim, and it is nearly impossible to see the composition.

Back in 2010, I developed an incredibly simple solution to this problem. Rather than trying to set up my camera in the dark, I found it easier to set up my camera the day before, then leave it in place overnight. For added peace of mind, I stayed with my camera until nightfall, then I logged it into my GPS, and returned to it before sunrise the next morning. This technique works best in wilderness areas where people aren’t likely to find your camera.

Over the course of seven years, my camera spent countless nights perched on the edges of cliffs, miles out on the salt flats, or in slot canyons in the Utah wilderness. Leaving my camera overnight was always a gamble — and that I was certainly putting my equipment at risk — but this technique paid off time and again. Many of my best photos wouldn’t have been possible without leaving the camera in place overnight.

It was during the winter of 2017 that my luck finally ran out. I was camping in Death Valley, and left my camera in place for a morning shot. I weighed it down with a stuff-sack filled with nearly 30lbs of rocks, covered it with my dark cloth, then drove back to my campsite for the night.

I slept in my truck that night, and remember waking up around 2am to the sound of strong wind. My truck was rocked back and forth by the strong gusts, and I had a bad feeling about my camera.

When I returned to my camera the next morning, I found that it had been tossed to the ground. The ground glass was shattered, and the wood frame was broken. Thankfully I had a backup camera with me on that trip, but I knew it was time to re-evaluate my technique of leaving the camera overnight.

Following that trip, I set out to find the most effective way to anchor the tripod to the ground. After testing several different methods, I learned that a single tether from the center of the tripod to the ground was the best method.

At my local hardware store, I bought a heavy duty 18” metal coil ground screw that looked like it would work well in the desert, especially areas with deep sand. At REI, I purchased some strong cord (very similar to paracord), and a multipack of Nite Ize Figure 9 fasteners that allow me to tension cord without the necessity of a knot. They are a huge time saver, and worked great for this application.

This setup is incredibly simple to use. Start by placing your tripod, then sink the orange sand screw into the ground at the center point of your tripod legs. Most tripods will have a hook or some sort of attachment to hang weight. Run the cord in a circular fashion between D-Ring of the ground screw and the tripod hook, then use the Nite Ize Figure 9 to tension the cord to itself and to lock it in place.

This technique paid off on my recent visit to Death Valley National Park. On one occasion, I left my camera overnight in some incredibly windy conditions, and it survived the 40mph plus winds without any issue. I used it again the next day to hold my camera steady while composing a photo in some strong afternoon wind. It was great not having to always keep a hand on the tripod to prevent it from tipping over.

I am very satisfied with this method, and plan on using it for future trips when the conditions require it, and where the use of a ground screw won’t harm the environment.





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